Interview: Under the Dog's Jiro Ishii and Koji Morimoto

by Lynzee Loveridge,

First, a little backstory. Under the Dog is a sci-fi action anime directed by Sword of the Stranger's Masahiro Ando that successfully managed to close Kickstarter funding last year. At the time, the project's producer was Hiroaki Yura, who we interviewed extensively on ANNCast; his motivation for using Kickstarter was, as articulated in the podcast, to be able to produce a show that hearkened back to the glory days of heady sci-fi action anime from the mid-1990s without the influence or requirements of a traditional production committee. This past January, Yura left the project suddenly, and producer Koji Morimoto stepped in. The new team granted us an extensive interview at this year's Sakuracon.

Can you tell us in detail why CIA, Inc. [Creative Intelligent Arts] departed the Under the Dog (UTD) production team?

Koji Morimoto (Under the Dog producer):
First of all, I actually joined Under the Dog production team as a new member. My basic understanding is this: a discrepancy or a gap existed between what CIA Inc. wanted to make and what the original story wanted to tell.

Would you say that there were creative differences?

It kind of depends on what you mean by creative differences?

In English, “creative differences” refers to when one person has something they'd like to do and another person has a different idea, and they can't meet in the middle.

I think that's very close to how I see it, too.

What would you say your vision then, would be?

So right now, where Under the Dog stands. So Ishii, he has the original story and is the original author. So we're going to make what he envisions it should be. My job is to support the production so it will be the film he and Ando [the film's director] want to make.

What are the differences between that and CIA's vision?

As far as the current Under the Dog production is concerned, this what we are trying to do: here is this idea that the original storywriter would like to do. Director Ando interprets the idea and directs an anime work based on his own interpretations. And my job is to provide support to make sure that happens.

Mr. Yura had certain ideas of his own about what he wanted to do with UTD, whereas we already had this original story to work with. So what we'd hope to do is to create an anime work based on that original idea we had from the start.

I think Mr. Yura wanted to make some other thing based on the original story/idea. But that's deviating from what we think Under the Dog is or should be. Apparently, he wanted to make all these changes, I guess. So we said, “That's no longer UTD.” That's what had happened, basically.

The original pitch for Under the Dog on Kickstarter was that Hiroaki Yura wanted to create the show free from the constrictions of a production committee. Did you agree with that attitude?

Morimoto: First of all, let me ask this question: how do people perceive anime production committees in the U.S.?

I think most Westerner's perceptions is that a Japanese production committee is a group of individuals, from a group of companies that are investing in some way, such as Bandai who are going to make toys, or the animation production company like Sunrise or A-1 Pictures, and the television company like TV Tokyo. Basically individuals from multiple companies, coming together, and supervising or editing the show. It's my understanding that they usually fund the show.

The role of a production committee is to support anime projects financially. It's simply a system set up for pooling budget. I guess what comes closest, in terms of American movie productions, would be distributors like Warner Brothers. They do provide funding. On the other hand, Bad Robot and New Line Cinema are the actual production companies. The equivalent would be Sunrise or A-1 Pictures in Japan. Those are the production houses doing the actual work for anime productions.

Does a project idea have to be pitched to a production company? Wouldn't they only fund it if they thought it would be profitable?

The initial agreement or contract rules everything. A production committee will decide on which project to fund. They will agree on whether to finance a project or not. However, there are almost no instances of shutting down or cutting off a project in the middle of its production.

Why wasn't Under the Dog pitched to a production company then?

That's a good question. [laughs]

Jiro Ishii (project writer): Well, the original story for Under the Dog was written in the 1990's. So it would look quite oUTDated and would not seem to work as an anime product in the 2010's, if you were to pitch the idea. That's what would come up as an issue.

Why wasn't it produced in the 1990s? Was it too edgy at the time?

It was actually something very suitable in the 90's. Why it was not produced back then was purely for a business reason. The work itself was very much fitting in that decade.

What came up in my mind was that I knew Japanese animation was popular in America. There are passionate fans of the anime from the 90's, I heard. So if a campaign could be launched on Kickstarter, it might be possible to revive the project, I thought. That's the reason why we chose to take it to Kickstarter. I thought I should take advantage of the fact it being old. I was able to turn a negative aspect to something positive.

Will Under the Dog still be produced without a traditional production committee?

Right now, we are only using a crowd funding system like Kickstarter and PayPal. We might have something additional, but we're certainly not using a production committee. The true substance of the system is so that the copyright will come under the control of the production committee. The copyright indication will be of the production committee, and they will own the rights. For UTD, the rights will be owned by the company who is producing the work, not a production committee.

Is the story changing at all? Is what was presented on the Kickstarter page still going to appear in Under the Dog?

Having implemented the transition to a new organizational structure, we can bring out the original story into anime exactly as it is described on the Kickstarter page. Actually, we can make a promise now that's exactly what is going to happen.

What sort of distribution can fans expect for Under the Dog? It's a series of films – will they get a theatrical release, or will they go straight to video?

Well, as a prerequisite, we have backer rewards that we promised to deliver, including Blu-rays, online distribution, etc. We will deliver all of them. Another thing to think about is, what can be done so that people other than the backers can also enjoy? For what is not yet promised to the backers, I'd like to come up with something fun or interesting. So I've started thinking about it. However, it's not something that we can make any official announcement as of yet.

When can people expect to see a trailer for Under the Dog? Do you have a release date for the first film in mind?

We'll have a new trailer come out this summer. Then the anime production will be finished by spring of next year.

Tell us a little bit about the major creative influences for this project. What would you compare it to?

I was greatly influenced by AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell, two anime titles from the 90's, first of all. As for a girl in a main character role, I'd say Evangelion and Kite. Especially Kite, where a teenage girl is an assassin. I brought up these titles, in terms of most influential animation works for me. As far as live action films are concerned, I'd say I got influenced by the impressions from Luc Besson's early movies like Leon the Professional and Nikita. When I was rewriting the script for UTD, I got very much influenced by a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro called Never Let Me Go.

What sort of audience are you trying to reach with Under the Dog?

As I mentioned earlier, we'd like to reach out to those of you around the world who love Japanese animation from the 90's. While I think the anime in the 2000's and 2010's are also great and fantastic, I'd like to cater to those who loved AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell from the 90's as well – something of a revival of the old school Japanese anime.

Hiroaki Yura's vision for Under the Dog involved anime as a global medium – stepping away from the idea of anime as a niche product that only appeals to a small hardcore consumer base in Japan, and instead producing something with an international appeal. Is this still the goal? Or is that where your differences manifested?

[UTD having international appeal as a global medium…] That's actually something that never changed since the beginning. So it's still very much intact.

Moving forward, would you consider crowd funding another anime series? Do you think crowd funding is still a viable means of raising capital to fund a series? Would you recommend crowd funding to other proven artists who are looking to produce something original?

I don't think we're eligible to talk about such things right now. We've got funded but we're still in the middle of our production. Our project will be complete when the end product is finally delivered to all our backers. Only then, we can find out and talk whether it was a good idea [to do crowd funding], and what kind of issues were there. We should also know the answer to the question by then, if we want to or should make something again through crowd funding.

Morimoto: What we should be doing now is to learn and understand what kind of things can happen. We haven't accumulated enough know-how at this point. So if we are to do another crowd funding, it'll be after pooling that knowledge.

Ishii: I've seen some other projects [other than anime] that got funded, but face a lot of difficulties moving forward. So we truly feel obliged to deliver all the rewards and keep our promises to our backers. Otherwise, there will be no future left for crowd funding. That's what we regard as the most important right now.

Do you think it's better to work within a traditional production structure, or do you think the freedom crowd funding affords you is worth the relative instability and insecurity of the financial situation (or capital) crowd funding puts you in?

It depends on what you mean by “capital”, but if you refer to the entire anime work, for instance, or a theatrical movie as a whole, then there will be many cases in crowd funding where you won't reach the goal amount.

Maybe you are referring to, “to launch/initiate the project?” Instead of financing the total amount for the whole project but only part of it as a start? If you mean for the entire project, then it's not going to be enough. Or, are you imagining it to be something like using crowd funding for a fund-raising to make an original short or a pilot film? It all depends on what you mean by “capital” or maybe it's more appropriate to call it “funding”.

If you mean by funding the entire project with crowd funding, you'd need to add one more digit to the goal amount. It simply won't be achievable. So which scenario are you imagining? One with fund-raising everything by crowd funding? Or one with a supposition that there will be a sponsor or sort of like a patron who would pay the rest of funding beside the crowd funding?

Well in the case of crowdfunding, funding can be unstable especially if expenses overshoot the projected goal where as a production committee is more stable.

It's a way of thinking: who is going to take up the responsibilities? A few hundred people are involved in making animation. Those several hundred people will be dedicating their time as work hours. They need to be paid, of course. The fact is, a production committee system enables that. The committee guarantees to pay for the staff, as they are capable of commissioning and hiring the staff.

On the other hand, if you are to start the production with insufficient finance through crowd funding, you're expecting those several hundred people to basically work for free, as volunteers. The question is: can you, or should you really do that? I think it will be difficult for the talented people with good track records to be working on such projects.

Ishii: Can I also say something? When you compare the two: production committee vs. crowd funding in terms of how much more [creative] freedom you can get – there isn't much difference between the two, actually.

With a production committee, the marketing strategy would be to create something that will cater/appeal to the video or DVD market. Whereas with crowd funding, it's better suited in making something that targets niche audience. I said previously that UTD is targeting the worldwide market, but it's actually a niche market [from the conventional Japanese market perspective]. So to make something that appeals to the worldwide audience, the production committee system actually works…

Morimoto: …better.

Ishii: And easier, too. It sounds kind of weird and contradicting, but this conversation is actually turning out to be something very interesting…

Morimoto: Yes, fundamentally, that is the case.

So to make something with worldwide appeal, does a production committee work better?

Ishii/Morimoto (in unison):
Since the market already exists out there, it could be produced by a production committee!

Ishii: In that regard, if you want to make something freely for a niche market, crowd funding can give you all the freedom you want.

The fact is, Under the Dog is NOT produced by a production committee. However, if you look at it now with this new perspective, it DOES have the worldwide appeal. So it COULD have been made by a production committee. It is very much a mainstream title. Wow, it's become a bit of a paradox! [laughs]

Morimoto: Well, it is tricky. [laughs]

So, you think projects like Under the Dog are becoming popular again in Japan?

It's kind of complicated, as it involves the marketing outlets.

Morimoto: Basically, it is.

Ishii: It's not that Japanese anime fans dislike something like Under the Dog. It's just that those people who buy DVDs and blu-rays…they simply don't buy something like Under the Dog.

Morimoto: Simply put, whether it's good or bad, it's economic circulation. When you make anime, you'll eventually have to pay back the people who financed the project in the first place. The way to pay back those people was through selling DVDs and blu-rays. So we were pretty dependent on the consumers, and there were plenty of people who would buy these products back then.

Currently, all the peripheral merchandise is still selling well, like figurines, card games, etc. Concerts or live performances are commonly widespread as well. Customers will fill out those venues and funnel a lot of money. However, going back to where we started, not much money is recouped by the production committee who financed the project in the first place.

So right now, who is creating or coming up with project ideas for anime? Many of the projects are still initiated by film distributors, but they do not sell well. All these projects are launched by pitching concepts for this or that, but the aim is still set on selling the packages (DVDs and blu-rays). Currently, customers would buy moe titles. That's why the market is so focused on the genre.

Ishii: Interestingly enough, I'm beginning to see it while we talked about this, but what's currently the mainstream in the Japanese market is different from what we're making with Under the Dog. However, from a global-market point of view, UTD is something mainstream, but that hasn't been proven. That is, if you really go out and put UTD on sale worldwide at once, would it sell? We still haven't proven it, so that's why we took UTD to Kickstarter. Had this point been verified already, we could have made UTD through the production committee system, with much higher budget and broader freedom for the creators.

If the first film does well, would you be able to get backing through a production company for the later installments?

However, because of the copyright issue, it's difficult for a production committee to get involved [later in development]. So we must devise a way somehow [if we are to have a production system to back us].

Morimoto: It's probably difficult for a production committee to invest, unless the copyright comes along with the project. So if we can convince the committee by bestowing the production staff and configuration as a whole package to show that the anime can be made, with a guarantee that the product will sell…then it depends on how a negotiation goes, but it might be possible to transfer the project to a production committee along with the copyright. Of course, it needs to be really thoroughly discussed internally, but it is possible.

Ishii: For instance, if Under the Dog can be expanded from just making one episode to really making a full 26-episode series, or turn it into a feature length film, then the necessary budget will be much bigger than what we garnered on Kickstarter. Or rather, we face a problem of not being funded in the first place if the goal amount was set so high. So we'll have to think of some ways for that. Another thing to mention is: even if the production switches over to a production committee system, the contents of Under the Dog will remain the same. Wherever the financing comes from, we will still provide exactly the same Under the Dog that everyone wants to see. So if we manage to secure the financial aspect [through a production system or some other way], we will be able to make all 26 episodes. That's how I picture it.

Morimoto: Well, that's the criteria we have.

Ishii: Indeed, our criteria.

Going back to a previous comment. You mentioned that if the funding wasn't there for a project, animators would have to work as volunteers. Are any of your animators currently working as volunteers?

We basically don't have any volunteers.

Ishii: Had we failed, we would have all worked as volunteers. [laughs]

Ishii/Morimoto: [in unison] There's no volunteer work, since we succeeded on fund raising!

Ishii: Had the Kickstarter campaign failed, I would have ended up working as a volunteer, too, for all the work involved with the planning of the project.

Morimoto: Another thing that can happen is this: you have the money, but you underestimated the costs involved, so you end up working without being paid. It is possible to often have cases where you've reached your goal amount, but it wasn't actually enough for the project. So you end up asking others to work as volunteers. Fortunately, Under the Dog didn't end up in that sort of situation.

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